14 Jan 2011

What Kwanza Jamii Njombe can learn from Arusha Times

Daraja's Kwanza Jamii Njombe newspaper is one of very few genuinely local newspapers in Tanzania. The vast majority of papers cover stories from the whole country (though with a big bias for stories from Dar es Salaam and Dodoma), and aim to distribute across the most cities and towns nationwide.

One of the few examples of a well established local paper is the Arusha Times, published weekly in English by F.M Arusha Ltd established by William Lobulu and available online with the most-read newspaper website in Tanzania. I had the opportunity this week to visit Arusha Times's office, to introduce Kwanza Jamii Njombe and to see what lessons Daraja can learn from Arusha Times's experience.

We shouldn't forget that Arusha and Njombe are very different settings for a local newspaper. It would not be possible for a local paper in Njombe to be published in English, for example, and the Arusha Times was able to link into existing distribution networks in Arusha of a kind that doesn't exist in Njombe. The two papers also have different goals. Kwanza Jamii focusses on good local governance, spending a lot of time and funds on expensive content such as investigative journalism and rural coverage, while the Arusha Times a gentler and more traditional local paper not particularly focussed on public interest journalism. But despite these differences, I was surprised by how much these two papers have in common - we sell roughly the same number of copies (3-4,000) we've had similar logistical and design difficulties with printing, to name just two.

Three lessons that Daraja can take from the Arusha Times stand out.

First, the Arusha Times is a weekly paper run by a team of three part time volunteers - an editor, a designer and an accountant. None of them work more than two days a week on the paper and the designer spends just a few hours on each issue. And yet, with careful use of freelance journalists and simple design and layout processes, they manage to produce a good paper.

Njombe doesn't have such a deep pool of freelance journalists to work with, and much of our content is time consuming to produce. But the fact that such a small team working on the Arusha Times can do what they do gives me confidence that we will be able to cope when the paper becomes more regular in a few months time. If we can make more effective use of freelance journalists than we currently do (Arusha Times gives journalists access to their computers, which is an idea we could usefully take on board), and perhaps also simplify some of our design and layout work, we should not have a problem.

Second, Arusha Times has survived for as long as it has (15 years), by building up a strong relationship with its readers. That's partly because their readers know that every Saturday a new issue of the paper will be available - when past printing problems caused late publication, readers' trust was damaged. It's also partly because the editor and journalists know their readership very well and produce the kind of content that attracts their readers.

In our case, we're only now beginning to build that kind of relationship. The advantage of making the paper more regular is clear, with weekly being the easiest option for readers. But perhaps more important is to make sure we are engaging our readers both with content that interests them and finding ways of getting them involved in contributing to the paper through letters, competitions, etc.

And third, the issue of sustainability is key. There may not be many local papers in Tanzania at present, but there is a long list of those that didn't survive. Arusha Times survives by having a dedicated team that don't expect to make a profit. Some issues attract more advertising and cover the funding shortfall of other issues that attract less. Kwanza Jamii Njombe is more expensive to run - our content is more expensive and the paper is monthly rather than weekly, hence advertising and sales revenue is lower. But we already bring in more revenue from advertising per issue than Arusha Times, and making the paper more regular will help too. Our immediate success in attracting advertising from local businesses in Njombe has been a very pleasant surprise.

I have often been asked whether we are aiming to make the paper full self-sustaining, and of course the answer is that we would love to be able to do that. But we certainly don't expect it to happen easily, and it may well be that it proves impossible to make it viable without compromising on the more expensive content we produce. The most expensive content is what contributes most to the paper's objective of accountable local government, so we're not going to set that aside in the name of profit. Which is why our more immediate and more realistic objective for the paper's business model is to be able to cover all costs except public interest journalism from sales and advertising revenues.

Ours is an ambitious programme but it's also an innovative one. We're treading new ground, so let's take it one step at a time.